A Song About Myself: A Poem by John Keats, illustrated by Chris Raschka

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  At the age of 22, John Keats went on a walking tour of Scotland. He wrote a letter to his younger sister describing the trip and included this four-verse nonsense poem about “a naughty boy” who travels “to the North”, and all the things he finds when he gets there.  Caldecott Medalist Chris Raschka has illustrated the poem with his usual bright paintings, including a detailed, labeled map of New York City and Scotland on the endpapers.  An author’s note at the end tells more of Keats’ life and how he came to write this poem.  40 pages; grades 1-5.

Pros:  A perfect introduction to a poet who might not generally be accessible to kids.  The short lines, rhyming words, and colorful illustrations make this a good first poetry book for younger readers.

Cons:  A written explanation of the map on the endpapers would have been useful.

Keep a Pocket in Your Poem: Classic Poems and Playful Parodies written and selected by J. Patrick Lewis, illustrated by Johanna Wright

Published by WordSong

Summary:  Former U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate J. Patrick Lewis has put together a collection of thirteen (counting the one on the back cover) well-known poems, along with his parodies of them.  For instance, Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” is turned into “Stopping By Fridge on a Hungry Evening”, and Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers” becomes “Grief Is the Thing With Tissues”. The original poem is included with the new version.  Lewis explains what he has done in his introduction, and invites kids to write their own parodies, or “parroty’s”, as he calls them.  32 pages; grades K-5.

Pros:  A fun way to introduce kids to poetry, as well as providing an extension activity for those wanting to dive deeper.  The cute, colorful illustrations include a multicultural cast of children.

Cons:  To me, the word parody denotes a certain degree of mocking the original, which is clearly not Lewis’s intention here.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Ekua Holmes

Published by Candlewick

Summary:  If you’ve read Kwame Alexander’s Booked or The Crossover, it will come as no surprise that both of his parents loved words and books.  He writes in his preface of being raised on a steady diet of poetry, and he pays homage to his favorite poets in this book.  The 20 poems, written by Alexander and fellow poets Chris Colderley and Marjory Wentworth celebrate poets and their poetry from Emily Dickinson to Langston Hughes to Rumi.  The last six pages give quite a bit of additional information about each poet.  56 pages; grades 3-7.

Pros:  A wonderfully diverse collection of writers and poems, brought to life with color collages by Caldecott honoree Ekua Holmes.  The second paragraph of Kwame Alexander’s preface would make a perfect introduction to a study of poetry, and the entire book could be used as a curriculum guide to introduce students to 20 different poets.

Cons:  Readers unfamiliar with the poets and their works may not appreciate these poems on their own.

Loving Vs. Virginia: A Documentary Novel of the Landmark Civil Rights Case by Patricia Hruby Powell, illustrated by Shadra Strickland

Published by Chronicle Books

Summary: This verse novel, related in the alternating voices of Mildred Jeter and Richard Loving, tells the story behind the Supreme Court case of 1967, which ruled that interracial marriage is legal.  Mildred, of African and Native American descent and considered “colored”, and Richard, who was white, grew up as neighbors in a close-knit, integrated Virginia community.  They fell in love, had a child, and got married.  Shortly after the wedding, the local sheriff barged into their home one night, arrested them both, and sent them to jail.  They pleaded guilty and were given a suspended sentence.   Forced out of Virginia, they moved to Washington, D.C., where both were miserable.  Over the course of the next nine years, their case was appealed, finally going all the way to the Supreme Court.  The decision was overturned on June 12, 1967, and at last, they could move back near their families to raise their three children.  The story is interspersed with text and photos describing the history of the Civil Rights Movement during the same time period as the case.  A final note tells what happened to the Lovings (sadly, he was killed and she was blinded in one eye by a drunk driver in 1975); also includes a timeline and an extensive bibliography.  260 pages; grades 7-up (some PG language).

Pros:  A fascinating, timely book.  Kids may have seen the 2016 movie Loving about this case.  The first person narration makes it a personal story.

Cons:  Although the book has many beautiful illustrations, I would have liked to have seen some photos.

One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes

Published by Bloomsbury USA Children’s

Summary:  Poet Nikki Grimes combines her own works with those of various poets from the Harlem Renaissance.  She uses the “Golden Shovel” method, in which she takes a line from another poet’s work, and uses each word from that line as the final word in every line of her own poem.  Her works focus on kids, particularly those of color, and have inspirational messages about hard work, hope, and being yourself.  The poems are illustrated by a variety of artists, including many children’s book illustrators such as Christopher Myers, Sean Qualls, and Javaka Steptoe.  An introduction gives a brief history of the Harlem Renaissance; back matter includes biographies of the poets and artists, sources, and an index.  128 pages; grades 5-9.

Pros:  Nikki Grimes was just given the Laura Ingalls Wilder award for making a lasting contribution to children’s literature, and this book continues in that vein.  Her own poetry is beautiful and inspiring, and placing it side-by-side with the Harlem Renaissance poets adds historical depth and richness.  The beautiful artwork completes the poetry.

Cons: Additional resources to learn more about the Harlem Renaissance would have been useful.

A Poem for Peter: The Story of Ezra Jack Keats and the Creation of The Snowy Day by Andrea Davis Pinkney, pictures by Lou Fancher & Steve Johnson

Published by Viking

Summary:  Andrea Davis Pinkney’s poetic homage weaves together biographical information about Keats with the story of the creation of his most famous book.  Born Jacob Ezra Katz, the son of Polish immigrants, the artist grew up in a poor Brooklyn neighborhood with a father who faced job discrimination and a mother whose secret dreams of becoming an artist never came to fruition.  Young Ezra loved art and won an art school scholarship, but when his father died of a heart attack the day before his high school graduation, his school days were over.  He was helped by the New Deal’s WPA, and went on to become a comic book artist before moving to children’s book illustration.  When he was asked to write and illustrate his own book, he thought of a little African-American boy whose picture in Life magazine had hung on Keats’s wall for many years.  This boy became Peter and the book was The Snowy Day.  Back matter includes “Ezra’s Legacy” with more information about the books that celebrated city life and the people from different cultures who lived there, and “Keats, the Collage Poet”, explaining how the verse narrative used for this book reflects Keats’ collage style of art.  60 pages; grades 2-5.

Pros:  A beautiful celebration of a life and a book, illuminated with illustrations inspired by Ezra Jack Keats’s art.

Cons:  I find the poetic biographies are a hard sell with the elementary crowd.

 

Are You an Echo? The Lost Poetry of Misuzu Kaneko narrative and translation by David Jacobson, Sally Ito, and Michiko Tsuboi; illustrated by Toshikado Hajiri

Published by Chin Music Press 

Summary:  Born in a Japanese fishing village in 1903, Misuzu Kaneko was fortunate enough to receive more education than most of her female contemporaries.  She worked in her mother’s bookstore and published her poems in magazines.  Then she made the unfortunate decision of marrying one of the bookstore clerks who was abusive, unfaithful, and passed on a devastating disease to Misuzu.  She divorced him, but when he insisted on full custody of their daughter (a right given to fathers only at that time in Japan), Misuzu committed suicide.  The first half of the book tells the story of her life, and the second half is a collection of her poems, written in both Japanese and English.  An author’s note and translators’ note explain the careful work and research that went into creating this book.  64 pages; grades 2-7.

Pros:  This might be the most moving book I have read in 2016.  Misuzu Kaneko’s life was ultimately tragic, but her poetry reveals a beautiful spirit who saw life and hope in ordinary objects around her.  Her poems are accessible to kids, yet infused with deeper meaning.  The gorgeous illustrations should receive Caldecott consideration.

Cons:  I was unprepared for the shock of reading about Misuzu’s suicide.